Guest blog// Paul Bright from Citizens Advice Hampshire on the Begging bowl

09.04.18

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I have lost count of the number of workshops, lectures and conferences where the keynote speaker asks, “So, what is the biggest challenge the charity sector faces in the next 3 years?”

No, the answer is not a lack of skilled work force, a lack ideas on how to meet client needs or a recognition of the need for change. The answer is always the same, “money.” So much so that now the question has changed to… “apart from funding what is the biggest…”

The days of charities relying on handouts have long gone. Not only through years of reduced funding opportunities but poor behaviour of large charities such as Oxfam and Kids Company. A further tension is the behaviour of large charities in marketing, fundraising and challenging other sections of the sector that do not reflect their core business. For example: CVS moving from their traditional consortia model to the delivery of advice and community services. Although written a couple of years ago Ellie Ward in her blog alludes the impact of big charities behaving badly.

There are two aspects to the challenge we face on the issue of funding.

Firstly, the focus of client-based services has been lost. The drive is to do things as cheaply as possible with disregard to the quality of the service offered. I have a friend who works for a multi-national company who recently outbid the nearest rival by over £2m; he doubts he can deliver what they promised however. Locally, I have been astounded by public sector tenders that are assessed 70% price and 30% quality. This means a watering down of support to clients and stops any innovation/preventative interventions. This shows complete disregard for the client and it doesn’t take an Oxford Don to work out that less money means less people/resources on the front line. It feels like the not-for-profit sector is treated with disdain.

Secondly, complex times present complex problems and many people in our community are being left behind; unable to cope with modern life. This actually means that the pressure on service increases not decreases. I was speaking this week to one of our advisers who was telling me about a confused elderly man who thought water bills were part of his rent and ignored letters from the water company. He finally came to Citizens Advice with a summons and is facing a potential prison sentence. Complex issues take time to resolve. It’s not just the problem facing a client, it’s their ability to understand and resolve such issues in the future; otherwise they fail the system again. To make matters worse it is public sector agencies that are sending clients to the not for profit sector because they are overwhelmed.

Action Hampshire have recently conducted a survey of the not for profit sector in Hampshire. The resulting report, State of the Voluntary Sector makes grim reading.

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The report I think provides empirical evidence of the impact of austerity and welfare reform on our sector and most importantly, on clients. Overall, circa 65% of agencies are seeing an increase in demand for services, coupled with a 30% reduction in capacity to deliver and 29% experiencing decreasing funds. Public sector contracts now, in my experience, do not account for core funding, are inflexible and invariably have an annual reduction in price built in.

Our current direction of travel is not sustainable; the bowl will eventually run dry. To continue to rely on a decreasing pot in a increasingly hostile environment will end in service failure. Only this week a local Citizens Advice office was facing closure through difficult commissioning discussions. What can we do?

Demonstrate impact: I discussed this in my previous blog and Citizens Advice have a grasp of the need for providers to make the case that fits with the needs of the community. We know for instance that the population of aged 65+ has risen by 49.4% since 1981. That trend is increasing. The public sector need help to solve the associated issues that come with an ageing population; we need to provide solutions, not seek handouts.

Work together: This is referred to in the Action Hampshire report, “Clients are more likely to have multiple issues, and as other support services have decreased we often cannot refer them for other support and therefore work holistically.” Not for profit organisations have core functions and expertise; with complex client needs there is a need to not just refer but work collaboratively to provide a holistic service. Moreover, the sharing of back office function and premises takes this a stage further. Look for your local police station and you will find it housed in the fire station.

Be Brave: Sustainability is found by reducing and spreading risk. But the conundrum is that taking risk is part of that solution. Take giving advice; what’s the first natural thing that happens when you sit with someone to talk about something important to them? You put the kettle on, so set up an advice cafe. Charity shops are plentiful; entrepreneurial development of activities that help to support our core offer make perfect sense. I love this idea developed by a food-bank in Bournemouth.

The future is within our grasp and control but if we continue to do what we have always done we will get what we always got — but less and less.

Paul Bright is the CEO of Citizens Advice Hampshire and a member of Hampshire Voluntary Sector Consortium. You can read his regular blog here.